I met Lemmy a week after coming out of a psychiatric ward and separating the myth from the man helped me become sober.
Drinking with Motörhead used to be a dangerous pursuit, as I discovered on a number of occasions during the noughties, and, as a friend of Lemmy’s publicist, I got to see the band play numerous times whilst pie-eyed. They were the soundtrack of Babylonian-style debauchery; a durable, cacophonous, and deceptively influential speeding juggernaut of a band. I even got to see them practice once—an experience that often reveals the sobering fallibility of most bands—and in that deafening, enclosed studio, I realized just how godly Lemmy Kilmister was.
I didn’t realize at the time, but all of my initial experiences with Motörhead involved me being routinely pissed and, more often than not, higher than a weather balloon. I remember—but only barely—when they played the Royal Opera House, as part of a string of unlikely events all across London at the invitation of the then Mayor, "Red Ken" Livingstone. Red wine was all I had on my mind, and all down my front too; it was a free bar. I somehow managed to navigate my way out into Covent Garden while it was still light, and headed home to sleep it off via the automatic pilot built into all the best drunks. Another time I momentarily drank with Motörhead and Saxon after a thunderous show at the Hammersmith Odeon. I then drank some more with Saxon back at their hotel long after Motörhead had all gone to bed. I mean how rock ‘n’ roll is that? To carry on when Motörhead have already retired to their respective chambers?
It wasn’t until the summer of 2010—as I reluctantly turned 37, now a long, long way from the hedonistic excuses of just being a twenty-something and that being okay—that I realized drinking copious amounts of alcohol whenever I went to a gig, or just wanted to listen to music in the house, or just wanted a drink, wasn’t really a laugh anymore. I had become a shambling wreck of a man: addicted to alcohol, dependant on drugs, lost, and near suicidal. Friends concerned about my health managed to get me into a psychiatric hospital in Hackney for five days. I had a shopping list of dodgy internet drugs in my system when they tested my blood, plus some conventional street drugs too, and all I could think about as they took the sample was walking out of there and finding some more. I kept talking about going out and laying my hands on “a final pint of freedom,” which made my friends shudder. I'd not really eaten properly for about six months, and the process of drying out and then wolfing down half-decent cooked food forced me to reassess my options.
Did I want to find myself here again in three to six months, or should I give sobriety a go? That “final pint” probably wasn’t going to be final. Before experiencing anything like this, I always thought that choosing recovery would be the obvious option for anyone who has driven themselves to destruction, but when you’re properly rock bottom, the idea of saving yourself seems like the most uphill and inconceivable task possible. To me, recovery envisaged a long and shit life ahead of me, stained in boredom, loneliness and celibacy, sat on cold church pews listening to other dried-out alcoholics talk about how actually it’s fine to go to the pub on a Saturday and just drink cranberry juice.
A week or so later, I was discharged from hospital. Coincidentally, Phil Hebblethwaite (editor of the now defunct The Stool Pigeon UK music newspaper), asked me if I'd like to stir up those old Motörhead passions, and head down to Stringfellows to interview Lemmy for a cover feature. I'd watched him play countless times while out of my gourd, I’d spoken to him while hammered, I'd even witnessed the sybaritic old goat offer to sign my girlfriend’s breasts (she politely declined) while we were both in some tanked up haze. The thought of re-approaching those memories with a sober mind scared the shit out of me. Could I honestly sit head to head, straight, and just chat to him? Lemmy was the belly of the beast.
I accepted and wandered into Soho shaking like a tambourine. As I arrived, I noticed Lemmy show up just ahead of me. Strident in stetson and SS boots, he stopped traffic as he marched forth. Delivery drivers, awestruck students and horrified old women turned and stared. It occurred to me in that moment just how famous Lemmy was. Everybody knew who he was, even if they didn’t know exactly what it was he did.
Stringfellows was as expected; a leopardskin mise-en-scene with half-hearted pole dancing in the middle distance. I was ushered out to the fire escape by Motörhead’s press officer, and onto a concrete stairwell away from the pervasive seediness. There sat Lemmy, on an animal skin throne, chugging furiously on a Marlboro red. I shook his hand; he acknowledged with a grunt. The press officer mentioned that I'd seen the band more than 20 times, and I winced like a kid whose dad just got the baby photos out. But Lemmy looked pleased. He lit up again, chaining cigarettes, thrusting the packet in my direction. I lit up too, my hand still shaking. I asked him if was easier at that time to find somewhere to smoke in London than in LA. “It’s roughly the same,” he growled. “LA was the first place to ban smoking. It was the fucking waitresses in the fucking bars that did it. I wouldn’t have tipped them had I known.”
Everything about Lemmy was anachronistic, from his well worn denim right down to his 70’s man attitude. At the time, the band were promoting their album The World Is Yours, a title he said was heavily sarcastic. I asked if the world was a worse place than it was when the band formed. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s like another planet. You wouldn’t believe what it was like then. If you could go back, you wouldn’t come back here.”
If the world had changed beyond recognition, then Lemmy hadn’t changed much at all over the 35 years Motörhead had been together up to that point. Even with my jaded memories, I could tell he looked no different from the day I first saw him play live. “That’s just luck,” he laughed. “Believe me I’ve not been putting no Oil of Ulay on every night. This is luck.”
Until ill health came a-knocking in recent years, I'd assumed Lemmy Kilmister might live forever, or at least outlive us all. Many have supped at the chalice of rock ‘n’ roll, and more have succumbed than made it to the grand old age of 70, living the uncompromising lifestyle that goes with being Motörhead’s Dionysian leader. He was certainly built of sterner stuff than you or I. But for every Lemmy, or Keith Richards, there must be hundreds of Jimi Hendrixs (who Lemmy roadied for back in the day) or Jim Morrisons, or Johnny Thunders, or Janis Joplins, who’ve crashed under the weight of alcohol or substance abuse. And thousands upon thousands more unknowns who’ve expired with no fanfare, sucked up and spat out by the myth that is rock ‘n’ roll. And me, with my own little path of wreckage, only just discharged from hospital—I wanted to know how Lemmy did it.
“Moderation,” he replied, with a stone face. “You have to learn how to be moderate. You have to know what’s good for you and what isn’t. What isn’t is overdoing it. Everything in moderation is okay. Nothing extreme is.”
It’s the sort of avuncular advice I hadn’t expected from the baddest motherfucker in rock ‘n’ roll, but there he was, being sensible. It made me realise how not sensible I’d always been. Because you look at icons like Lemmy, and you just assume that they are eating drugs and drink for breakfast and living the most outrageous life on the planet, and you can too because look at them, they are fine. But here he is, calm and collected, giving me level headed guidance.
I decided to tell him what had happened to me, how it had accelerated over the years, and that I’d stopped drinking and taking drugs after my visit to the psychiatric ward, only a week ago. He put his hand onto my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re OK now aren’t you?” His eyes were watery and his grip was hard. It was a strange moment. Lemmy the man, or the myth, had many stories attached to him. I’d heard that he used to make everyone in his entourage drink to "ensure they weren’t cunts." But the man I met was impressive for all the other reasons. He was a compassionate human, who talked to me candidly about his estranged father, surviving a life in rock, and even the uncharacteristic Motörhead ballad and war protest song "1916."
“If you overdo booze it’ll kill you,” he warned. “If you overdo heroin... Well, you don’t even need to overdo heroin, just do heroin and it’ll kill you. If you overdo speed or coke it’ll send you nuts. There is a way through it, you can do everything in moderation, you just have to be content with a bit of a buzz and not going to the moon all the time… Most of my generation that I hung around with are gone. And when I say gone, I don’t mean dead particularly, though I’m sure a lot of them wished they were. There’s a couple in mental hospitals and a couple endlessly going into rehab, in and out, in and out…”
Speaking to him that day helped galvanise my recovery. In AA, the Big Book talks of alcoholics looking for softer options. Hearing Lemmy talk made me realise that I would never be able to drink steadily without going to the moon. There was no softer option. Once I started, all bets were off, and no attempts to control it were ever going to work for me like they did for him. He was a one off, a master of self-control, and I wasn’t made from that same mould. AA and therapy helped saved my life, but in a funny way, my rollercoaster relationship with the myth and then reality of Lemmy Kilmister was just as valuable. His salutary advice would never work for me, and he helped me to realise that.
When I heard the news of his passing, I didn’t rush to the bar and drink to the departed, though I did play "Killed By Death" loudly in tribute to a fine man. That’s not something you can say about everyone who collects Nazi memorabilia. Lemmy is sadly no more, and that final pint of freedom still awaits me, but a day at a time I keep putting the bugger off.
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